Shannon Lynch: My Happy Place

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“Even when I’m a thousand miles away from my roots, I’m home.”

-Zac Brown Band

Growing up in a small town in Southern New Jersey with not many things to do and always wanting to be elsewhere, it was hard to find a sense of place and home there. Since moving out West four years ago, I’ve moved three times, Colorado, Nevada, and now Montana—each place feeling more like home than the previous. I’m not quite sure if Montana is the place, but I’m okay with that, I have plenty left to explore.

Jumping into a six-week course that explored the Crown of the Continent, I was excited to get to know places I’d never been to. The Crown of the Continent includes northern Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia.  And I love it. Plans have changed on the fly—rerouted backpacking trips due to flooding and recent forest fires—but that’s okay, life is always changing things up.

School hasn’t been the easiest journey for me. I’m dyslexic and have reading and writing comprehension issues. This course is challenging. Getting up at 7 am, having class at 8, then tossing on a 60lb pack and hiking 7 miles to our next destination to then read 50 pages that night, can be tiring. But when I’m in nature learning clicks for me.

Walking through and learning about my surroundings suits me better than merely reading about it.  I came into this trip not knowing any tree species. Within two weeks, I can easily spot a Western Larch, Lodge-Pole Pine, White Bark Pine, Engelmann Spruce, and so on. I had never backpacked prior to this and three weeks in, I have my daily backpacking routine down, such as how to organize and fit my pack properly. It has been rewarding to see how far I’ve come academically and physically.  I feel a sense of pride of my accomplishments. This sense of pride has been boosting my mental health.

My mental health tends to drop in school since my way of learning doesn’t fit into the “traditional” educational system. My academic struggles are not fun to deal with and can be discouraging at times.  But an outdoor classroom doesn’t have the same distractions as an indoor one, such as a kid in front of you on his laptop watching Netflix or the girl texting on her phone having an argument with her boyfriend. The outdoor classroom may have a nosey chipmunk or an Osprey diving into the lake looking for breakfast. Many of these distractions provide teachable moments. Being able to sit at an alpine lake, enjoying its beauty and enjoying my reading is very calming because I’m absorbing more out here. This course has shown me that I can progress in school and my grades so far have been proving so.

One of our guest speakers, who teaches at the Blackfeet Community College, is also an advocate for experiential education.  She said that the Blackfeet value it for their growing process. As Helen said, “how can you be in it and not outside?” Words on paper can only do so much justice.

Really getting to know this place and the people in it has made it feel like home. Finding a sense of place in a country I’ve never been to is exciting. As we have learned in class, hundreds of species and different environments all have a connection together. As I learn more and explore new places, I find new connections to these places. I like the NorthFace tagline, “Never Stop Exploring”, and use it as a motto for myself. As I keep exploring on this course, it’s refreshing to be connected to new territories and call them home. I am satisfied knowing that “Even when I’m a thousand miles away from my roots, I’m home.”

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Steve Schmidt: One Father’s Epiphany

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To the fathers of eight exceptional young women:

You sent your girls off into the backcountry of Montana and Canada. I would have been nervous being a father of three adult girls myself.

We left two days after Father’s Day. I, like many of you, most likely did not get to enjoy our daughters’ company on that special day. Your girls may no longer live with you, but I assure you, you are with them. Walking these trails, I have heard countless times: ”my dad does this” or “my dad says that.

The girls, your girls, they dream of careers, question religions of the world, worry about finances, speak well about their families, and ponder possible love interests. The very same hopes, dreams, and concerns that you and I enjoyed as twenty-somethings leaning forward in life; they are eager!

From the time of Plato, higher learning has been about self-enlightenment – striving to be the best person one can be. Most colleges emphasize the academic, of course; however, the Wild Rockies Summer Semester is not bound to the academic enlightenment per se. Along with studying engaging, timely topics such as conservation biology, traditional ecological knowledge in the Rockies, and the history of Wilderness, we choose to push ourselves physically in pursuit of intellectual growth.

To all the fathers: the morals you spoke, instilled in them, and lived by, are the tools these girls carry into the backcountry – and into life. If you are overly concerned about them here in the wild, STOP! It is their turn! So rest easy, Dad, your little girls are Strong, Powerful, Women. With each stride forward on these backcountry trails, they step forward into their physical, intellectual, and feminine enlightenment.

Earl Clark: Solutions are not Simple

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After a thoroughly educational talk with Mike Scott, a farmer from Billings, about the effects of an oil spill on his land and the surrounding community, we went inside his relative’s house to watch a film.  On screen we’d see a younger version of Mike and his wife Alexis from seven years prior when they were impacted by Exxon’s pipeline break on the Yellowstone River in southern Montana.  Less than one percent of the 63,000 gallons of crude were recovered, and Mike is still trying to get his land back into farming shape all these years later. I thought they would be making a one-time appearance in the film, but they’re actually interspersed throughout “This Changes Everything”: a documentary that looks into different communities around the world and their relationship with fossil fuels and renewables.

I had never heard of the film and would rather have been sightseeing Billings on the touring bike, but that was not on the agenda of the day.  As we sat down and started watching the film, it was apparent from the beginning by its quality that it was one of those blockbuster environmental documentaries that tend to streamline complex issues and present a singular narrative.

Immediately I became apprehensive to the proceeding time the film would occupy, yet the film got off to a solid start with an insightful presentation of the tar sands in Alberta.  I was previously unaware of the size of the operation so this was good insight. The film continues, and subsequently arrives to Mike Scott’s farm and shows him traversing his land with his wife after the spill.  It was a bit surreal to see the man on screen we had just met with, and it was valuable to see the situation from this angle.  The visual documentation added depth since we’re so far removed from the situation years later.  It’s through a screen, but seeing the situation as it occurred gives a more personal experience than listening to someone talk or reading an article.

Unfortunately the film proceeds to gradually fall into the trap that these blockbuster enviro-docs do.  We’re given a superhero narrative.  Fossil fuels become the bad guy and renewables the good guy.  Simplicity enters and complexities exit.

Really these films seem to have a predisposition to draw a conclusion before filming begins; fossil fuels are the devil and renewables the savior; renewables are perfect beings that can do no wrong.  This thought process is quite unlike the amateur student documentary we watched, “Battle of the Bulls: A Conflict in Cattle Country.”  In this film, one-on-one screen time is split between the rancher and the coal miner, both receiving plenty of camera time, and the coal miner isn’t painted  with broad brushstrokes through footage and techniques that serve to smear his morality.  In “This Changes Everything,” whenever fossil fuel footage is shown, ominous and foreboding music plays while upbeat music cues for renewables. People with relations to the fossil fuel side are presented as aloof, sinister characters.  Between interviews, gratuitous shots of people in poverty are thrown in, and we see protesters shot dead by police.  Furthermore, should someone do something that the audience could perceive as objectionable, it will be a prime focus on camera.  For example, we see a worker in Canada blow his nose into currency and the camera really zooms in during the town hall meeting when the VIP’s are on their phones. There also seems to be a lack of transparency here, as the tar sands workers seem to think they’re on reality tv, and it’s hard to tell if they know they’re being interviewed for this documentary.

So the big danger of these blockbuster enviro-docs is that complex subjects are stripped down to black and white.  The answer to the problem is simple, easy, and given, and was decided before any filming began.  This is problematic because global issues are far from simple and don’t have simple solutions.  Film is a highly visual medium, which is good for transmitting scale, emotions, and animated diagrams of the ways things work, such as the longwall mining in “Battle for the Bulls,” but is less suitable for transmitting facts and presenting multiple sides of a subject objectively.  Visuals are highly interpretive while text is not so.  Film synthesizes vast amounts of information, so the audience is unaware of what is left out or what was selectively chosen to be included.  A well-informed citizen reads articles and does research.  He does not simply get the gist from headlines and talking heads on tv.  Moreover, after a portion of the public has been exposed to these films, they buy into the repeatedly drawn conclusion and believe they’ve been empowered with the answer.  Consequently, they become close-minded and are unwilling to have their viewpoint challenged, furthering division.

Emi Okitsu: I don’t have a chocolate, can I have yours?

Emi Blog 1 photo 2While biking up the hill in Eastern Montana, I thought about my arrival to the United States three years ago. Now I am studying energy issues and climate change while I bike from Billings, MT to Glacier National Park with nine of my classmates. The Wild Rockies Field Institute offers a course called Cycle the Rockies, which seems to be one of the most challenging hills in my college life.

I can see my classmates far away. I only can hear my heavy breath and a sound of the wind. I pedaled harder to catch up with them, but my legs are almost out of energy. Yesterday, we stayed at the beautiful ranch near Billings, Montana. Three dogs came up to us to say hi every morning. The beautiful sunset was the one of the most memorable moments in this trip. I wish I could camp there a little longer. Ranchers in the area are afraid of the ground collapsing due to underground coal mining. This type of mining is risky for ranchers who have natural resources below their land. Additionally, ranchers are concerned about how the coal extraction process will impact their aquifer. These problems can cause issues for human and cattle, and secondary disasters such as accidents on the collapsed land. I have enough time to contemplate many things while I’m biking, so I ask myself, “What is the best solution?” Shifting to renewable energy sounds like a strong candidate. But is the solution that simple?

If you bike in a group, a person who can bike faster leads the rest of group members. The person in the front becomes a windbreak for the next person, and the next person helps the next person to break wind and so on. So you can pedal easily if you are close to someone. But once you fall behind the group, you get the wind on whole your body resulting in more and more distance from your group. Now, I can barely see my classmates. It is a windy day. I need energy to keep pedaling to the top of this hill. I need to eat a cho-coal-ate at next stop but unfortunately I don’t have any. It seems like my classmates are waiting for me on the top of the hill. After this steep hill, there is our destination, Signal Peak Coal Mine, the only underground coal mine in Montana.

A tour inside of the facilities of Signal Peak Energy required us to wear very heavy steel-toed boots. Ninety-eight percent of Signal Peak’s coal products go to Asia, especially, to China, South Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, where I was born and raised. These countries are rapidly climbing up the hill of development. Signal Peak Coal Mine and other energy resources are windbreakers for these countries. The reason why some Asian countries cannot climb up the hill alone is because of their low self-sufficiency ratio of energy supply. Japanese self-sufficiency ratio of energy supply was only 8.3 percent in 2016. This is a really low number compared to Norway which has 702.6 percent of self-sufficient energy. Japan has some nuclear power plants in its own country, however, the nuclear power generation decreased from 11.2 percent to 0.8 percent between 2010 and 2016. This decline of generation happened because of the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima after the earthquake in 2011. Dependency on imports of coal, oil, and natural gas increased more and more in Japan. Seven years since the earthquake happened sounds like a long time has passed for me, but the energy issue doesn’t seem to be developing quickly.

I can’t stop thinking about the ranchers around Signal Peak Coal Mine after I learned that only two percent of Signal Peak’s coal is used in the United States. Do those ranchers suffer for 98 percent exporting coal? For Asian countries? For my friends and family? This happens not only in Montana, but also many other states and countries which provide energy resources to the world.

So what is the best solution? I couldn’t come up with anything while I was biking from Signal Peak coal mine to our next destination. It is a complex international issue. To make a change in coal industries, coal demands also need to be changed. I believe that increasing the renewable energy generation and decreasing the non-renewable energy generation in Asian countries will change the United States’ coal mining production eventually. To make it happen, we need development of new technology of more efficient renewable energy generation and energy storage.

 

Cory Couture: Chemical Dependency

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How long can you go without a cup of coffee? Tea? Red Bull? Do you get headaches if you miss your morning cup of coffee? If so, you are chemically dependent. A chemical dependency can take many forms like drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and in my experience, fossil fuels like coal. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a whopping 30% of the United States’ energy is produced by coal burning. In Montana, coal has had tremendous success as a global coal exporter and has helped grow small communities where a population dependent industry such as retail would fail.

I recently visited Signal Peak Coal mine and was able to learn about the various processes that go into coal mining. The handful of employees I talked to were more than thankful for the coal company. Signal Peak provides relatively high paying jobs with fair shifts. They even won awards for their outstanding safety record with their last accident occurring five years ago; an employee slipped on ice in the parking lot and twisted a knee, an injury independent of the mining process. College students are also given the opportunity to take summer jobs with lofty wages between semesters.

Following the visit to this mine, I had the honor to stay at St. Benedict’s Church in Roundup, Montana courtesy of the regional Knights of Columbus. The Knights and a small group of the church’s congregation raved of the development that tax revenue from Signal Peak had allowed for: old schools and public infrastructure were rebuilt or restored with the new revenue. These experiences are undoubtedly very important to Montana’s citizens, so, how can coal be a metaphor for drug abuse? Similar to a substance addiction, coal development has an innocent hook, devastating progression, and the chance for recovery that is often ignored.

What would I know about addiction or chemical dependency? I come from a small city in Upstate New York where meth and other hard drugs are prevalent. I constantly see in the news the stories of drug busts, negligent mothers abusing drugs and the most normal people overdosing. I see old friends of mine use tobacco, weed and alcohol to cope with life after high school. These unfortunate occurrences remind me of how the coal industry operates. Initially, coal mining is offered to Montana as a lucrative source of revenue. A few mines pop up and proves that to be true. So, more mines are proposed and built. Hooked. The West has now seen what coal can bring to them: wealth and development. But it’s too good to be true. The side effects of coal development can hurt local communities and property.

One of stops we made was in Shepheard, MT at a ranch owned by Steve Charter. There, I learned of the negative impact of coal exploration. The method used by many mines to attain coal is longwall mining; this process removes vast swaths of coal beneath the ground’s surface causing large scale depressions in the landscape. As the coal is removed, the ground above collapses several feet down resulting in faulting that can harm a ranch’s ability to migrate cattle and farm the land, and severely damage the ability for natural springs and wells to provide water. Moreover, toxic chemical byproducts released by the coal when burned can leach into surrounding water sources. This has not occurred at the Signal Peak mine, though nearby in the above-ground mine called Colstrip, ash holding ponds are actively leaking water with high amounts of boron, arsenic, lead and other toxic substances. Even if properly taken care of, this water has the potential to severely ruin surrounding waterways. To make matters worse, the burning of the coal unlocks ancient carbon deposits resulting in climate change and a degradation of the surrounding air quality.

Coal has similar impacts on the environment that drugs have on the body. Though, it is not too late to change. The Charters are associated with the Northern Plains Resource Council and actively oppose the expansion of coal development. Steve Charter successfully protected the Bull Mountains from some of the expansion of Signal Peak coal mines. Furthermore, he supports renewable energies and the allocation of capital for the retraining of miners to work on solar panels, windmills and other renewable energies. In recent years, the demand for coal power has drastically decreased. States that purchase power from Montana are demanding energy from renewable sources. Even the leading energy producer in Montana, Colstrip is looking to close all four of its units within the next decade. So, the allocation of support and resources to promote coal companies by both the public and national government is supporting a failing industry; in the long run, this would do more harm than good as it inhibits the advancement of renewable technology and further damages the global climate.

Thus, Montana should completely remove itself from the fossil fuel industry, right? Unfortunately, no. Addictions are difficult to get over. In my experience, the more force and pressure an individual experiences, the lower the chance of successful recovery. If this is also true for the conversion of a state or country to renewable energies, then this issue of fossil fuel dependency gains several levels of complexity. If not done correctly, the removal of Montana’s coal industry could result in many individuals without wages or insurance equivocal to those provided by coal companies like Signal Peak. It’s possible that people would have to sell their homes in towns with drastically falling populations and relocate.

As a stark supporter of renewable energy, I believed that we must rapidly end the use of fossil fuels. By spending just one week in Montana, I have learned more than I thought possible and discovered that I have been naive about the truth of the West’s coal dependency. I aim to use the journey ahead of me here in Montana to grow my understanding of how we can end the West’s chemical dependency.

 

Alyssa Swartz: Wilderness Defined Differently

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No one wants to carry around an encyclopedia in their 75 liter pack through the Scapegoat Wilderness. Even if I did want to carry around my phone, there is no service for Siri to look up definitions for me. Therefore I am challenged to create my own definition of “Wilderness.” With assistance of my WRFI reader, I have carefully crafted my own personal definition that I can only hope meets the standards of my naturalist predecessors.

Bob Marshall in his 1930 essay “The Problem of Wilderness” spoke of wilderness as “a region which contains no permanent inhabitants, possesses no possibility of convergence by mechanical means, and is sufficiently spacious that a person in crossing it must have the experience of sleeping out.” Over the past week, I have been honored to backpack through the Helena National Forest and Scapegoat Wilderness, part of a series of interconnected wilderness areas named after Bob Marshall himself. He was a pioneer, with inspiring insight and thoughts about the American landscape beyond his time.

A more recent thinker who also tackles ideas about wilderness is the writer Christopher Ketcham. In his recent article in Orion Magazine, called “Taming the Wilderness,” he writes: “Wilderness is intended, among its other purposes, to be a refuge for wild animals and plants, where the processes of evolution, so far as we humans have observed them, are to remain unmolested and unhampered.” Ketcham also defines wilderness as “difficult to reach and explore, sometimes dangerous to life and limb.” Through his writings, Ketcham inspires me to expand my own definition of the natural world and of wilderness. We must acknowledge that we have not been “humble or responsible.” This realization has led me to a passion for stepping up and advocating for the stewarding of our public lands and wilderness.

In addition to Marshall and Ketcham, other naturalist writers have contributed to my personal definition of wilderness, including Thomas Lowe Fleischner and the novelist Wallace Stegner. These two authors had powerful remarks about loving the natural world we are surrounded by, and fighting for what is left of it. Both encourage acceptance of what is, but also of what can be. While they don’t deny that there are serious environmental problems, they both encourage us to strive beyond the status quo. They both want us to better the wilderness in every possible way. Thomas Lowe Fleischner states “a known and loved world has more effective advocates than one that is ignored.” Wallace Stegner writes, “Better a wounded wilderness than none at all.” These wise words have provoked in me my own, unique definition of wilderness.

Now with you I share my vision of Wilderness:

Wilderness: A home to plants and animals that did not earn our respect, but simply deserve our respect through their existence. A natural area that allows humans to escape, find solitude, and practice mindfulness. A home and refuge that must be protected and fought for by the naturalists and passionate advocates, few in number, but strong in heart.

My definition of Wilderness draws on perspectives from both science and philosophy. To me, my definition is pure, honest, and valuable. The opportunity to temporarily live in a Wilderness, as I am right now, forces me to practice being a steward of this earth. It forces us, as humans, to open our eyes to how small we are in the scheme of all beings. These vast landscapes allow me to dream bigger, reach higher, and advocate for the land that sustains us.

Although my journey to find and perfect the definition of Wilderness is just beginning, I hope and dream that with every passing night, I find more of myself among these lands; I want my dreams to soar, just as the towering Lodgepole Pines reach for the sky. They are my guides. For now I thank the Wilderness for humbling me, empowering me, and allowing me to let my light shine.

Wyatt Zahringer: The Insanity of Energy Production

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The title of this blog should be a good indicator of what is about to come. And yes, I am going to provide you with the definition of insanity. Insanity is doing something over and over again while expecting different results. Some might even say this about both the coal industry and environmentalists. One side believes that if we have a resource in the ground that is to be used, we should use it. Why would this be an option when we know the environmental costs of coal mining and emissions from energy production with the use of coal? On the other hand environmentalists see this as humans overstepping their boundaries as we try to bring the Earth to its knees in hopes that we will someday control it.

I also think that a form of insanity comes along with the task of dismantling careers that support thousands of families. The aforementioned “control” comes in the form of energy production. Something that is important in a world that has a population that is ever growing. The topic of energy production casts a wide shadow with many stones to be overturned; which is what has brought me to the state of Montana. I choose to seek enrollment in the Wild Rockies Field Institute’s (WRFI) Cycle the Rockies course looking for some of these answers. WRFI provides exploratory educational opportunities for students to learn about these issues, as well as being able to talk to individuals who live and work in regions affected by energy production. These opportunities help to bring understanding to these people’s stories and lives in respect to energy production. Oh, one last side note… we will be riding 700 miles by way of bicycle from Billings, MT to Whitefish, MT.

Our first stop on this 700 mile journey brought our bunch to Steve Charter’s cattle ranch near Shepherd, MT. As we approached the driveway of the ranch with sweat-filled brows and sore legs, a new world opened before our eyes. Little did we know that the pungent smells that filled our noses with disgust would soon be a topic of discussion.

The next morning we were able to walk through a small section of Steve’s ranch with his colleague, John Brown, who had a vast knowledge of soil and plant biology. Little did we know what they were trying to achieve on this allotment of land in Southeastern Montana. This was not your average ranch, Steve and John, along with Steve’s two adult children, are adopting a more holistic take on agriculture. One that rivals what they called “more-on” agriculture: that type of agriculture that requires farmers to apply large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous to their fields for ample crop production. John informed us that by doing this you essentially kill off the natural organisms that should be providing plants with these nutrients. They need these grasslands to provide food for their cattle. The problem is cattle also need a solid water supply, which Steve feels could be in jeopardy because of a large coal mine near the Bull Mountains. If only I had some perspective from the individuals who work in those mines…

It just so happens that the next day of our month long journey brought us to the very mine in question, Signal Peak Energy. After a grueling uphill climb we arrived for a tour of the mine, something I had never done before. We met with our guide, Byron, one of multiple generations of workers in the mining industry, currently including his son and daughter. After swapping out tennis shoes and spandex bike shorts for steel toe boots and full body smocks we were off. He displayed the larger conveyor belts that fed the almost monster like crusher. Next, he displayed the holding stacks that fed lines which in turn packed rail cars with coal. The most memorable parts of our conversations revolved around the importance of safety and family. He stated that this mines main purpose is to provide high quality coal while not jeopardizing the safety of their employees. These were people and not the money-hungry coal miners I had envisioned less than 12 hours ago. They had mouths to feed and families to cherish, just like the Charters.

So where does all this insanity come from? Could it be that we have cornered ourselves to believe that coal miners are hell bent on destroying the Earth at the cost of the all mighty dollar? Or that we continually portray those in opposition of fossil fuels as a superhero posturing for the crowd? This makes me think of my own personal life back home in Wisconsin.

With both of my parents working in the paper industry, I have seen first-hand the effects this industry had on the waterways of my hometown. These waterways include but are not limited to the Fox River and Lake Winnebago. With a nickname like Lake Winneseptic it is hard not to be cynical towards an industry that has polluted these waters to eternity. What I would give to see what those ecosystems looked like in their prime. Nonetheless this industry has provided me with a limitless life. A roof over my head, clothes on my back, and most importantly an education. Yet, I still find myself coming to verbal blows with my father over what should be a peaceful cup of coffee. These conversations usually end with the same quote, “Don’t speak ill of something that has given you life.” This quote has flown through my head several times in different situations over the past two days.

I find myself empathetic for people I had not in the past and on the edge of my seat for more information about topics I thoroughly enjoy. Maybe the insanity is not in the production of energy, but something much bigger than that. I think that this insanity comes in the form of stereotypes of each group. When in reality we need to think of new ways to find systems that can provide clean energy that do not degrade the Earth at unsustainable levels. We also need to remember that everyone has needs and potentially have people that rely on them for those needs. Who am I to take food out of someone’s mouth while I try to make myself feel better about shutting down another “dirty” coal mine? On the other hand, who is to say that Steve and his gang do not have the right to maintain his lifestyle and a fair shake at his piece of the pie? Most importantly, when does the Earth gets its time to attempt a recovery of the scars we have left behind? When will we as a society open our eyes to the rapidly changing climate and the implications that has for the human race as a whole?